Ronald L. Trosper

Program Head, American Indian Studies

My research interest in sustainability has taken me into the field of ecological economics, where I am using concepts of “emergence” to unify analysis of ecosystems and social systems. An emergent structure results when interactions among its components create novel properties and new powers for the emergent entity. Material emergent structures involve material interrelationships; cultural emergent structures involve links among ideas; people’s emergent structures are social entities with roles and responsibilities for persons. I have reinterpreted current definitions of sustainability as different versions of the reproduction of material, cultural, and people’s emergent structures. Applying this approach to First Nations issues, I am interested in the emerging respectability of the world views of indigenous peoples, problematically labeled “traditional ecological knowledge.” Although this transformation in the sphere of ideas reflects concern for sustainable resource management, practical obstacles exist because resource management organizations cannot use traditional ecological knowledge without major structural and conceptual reforms. I am studying these difficulties in one case by examining the contrast between sustainability among indigenous Northwest Coast societies and unsustainable resource management practiced by contemporary organizations, with particular emphasis on forests and fisheries. Current unsustainable institutions and industrial structures provide a context for consideration of aboriginal rights and title under new provincial and federal policies, particularly in British Columbia. In Canada, the need to recognize Aboriginal rights and title intersects with other changes to allow exciting reconsideration of fundamental issues in order to address forest sustainability. Dominant organizations might learn about sustainability as they engage societies which used to practice it. Taking an aboriginal perspective, my research examines this contemporary confrontation and reconciliation among world views, with particular focus on changes in management practices which might result.

I have worked on traditional forest-related knowledge and teach a course on traditional ecological knowledge.  I am also interested in indigenous economic systems, particularly those that support or supported resilience and sustainability.


  • Ph. D., Economics, Harvard University, 1974